“Sideboarding is hard.” That’s often newer Magic players’ first complaint, as they venture to their local FNM and start playing best-of-threes. Given a reasonable draw and a good match-up, most new players know their own deck well enough to win a game one. But those same players can get DESTROYED after sideboarding, as their more experienced opponents use those 15 extra cards to adapt their game plan.
I do not profess to be a sideboarding expert. In fact, I’d say just the opposite; I’m still figuring it out. But I’ve developed a process that largely works for me, a casual-competitive player. And I think I can distill it down into something that will help those just starting to sideboard.
So let me give it a shot. Assuming you’ve built a sideboard, played a game one, and you’re headed into game two, this is what you should do next.
First, Take the Bad Cards Out of Your Main Deck
You will be tempted, as soon as game one is over, to immediately reach for your sideboard and begin pulling out cards, especially if you have a silver-bullet style card that you believe solves the match-up. You won’t want to wait to side it in.
Do not do this thing. It’s much more important to figure out which cards in your main deck are bad first.
Finding useful cards in your sideboard is relatively easy. Cutting cards from your main deck is harder. It requires you to think about what happened in game one, understand which cards won’t be useful against the deck you’re playing with, and cut as many of those as you can without disrupting your deck’s overall game plan. Additionally, cutting cards from your main deck first will tell you how many sideboard cards you should actually bring in.
Here’s an example. I recently picked up Grixis Death’s Shadow again. Game one, match one, I played against a TitanShift deck. As we shuffled up for game two, I knew roughly what cards I wanted to bring in from my sideboard. But before I picked up my sideboard, I shuffled through my main deck and considered what was bad.
Almost immediately, I searched for and removed all three Fatal Pushes. They kill almost nothing in the TitanShift deck. I also looked at cutting Dreadbore, as it is pretty slow against Primeval Titan, especially one sent in Through the Breach. I did not immediately remove the Dreadbore, though, as it was not egregiously bad. I simply shuffled it to the front of my deck.
The rest of my deck, from Thoughtseize to Stubborn Denial, looked good. I considered my overall plan, which would be to slam a threat quickly and end the game before the TitanShift player could fight through my disruption. Every card left in my deck was set to further this plan. Then, and only then, did I go to my sideboard.
By looking at your main deck first, you set yourself up to sideboard in accordance with your game two and three plan, instead of just randomly pulling cards from your sideboard and finding spots to plug them in. After you’ve made your plan, and removed the cards that won’t help with that plan, you’re ready to move to your sideboard.
Now, Look for Good Cards in Your Sideboard
Now that you know your plan, and roughly how many cards you want to replace from your main deck, it’s time to choose cards from your sideboard.
To continue my Grixis Shadow vs. TitanShift example, I knew I wanted to being in cards that would disrupt my opponent’s combo just long enough for me to kill them with a large Death’s Shadow or Gurmag Angler. To that end, I looked for cheap counterspells and other disruption, as well as ways to speed up my clock. I settled on bringing in Stubborn Denial and Disdainful Stroke as extra disruption, and Temur Battle Rage to power through Sakura-Tribe Elders and other blockers.
Some sideboard picks (like the Disdainful Stroke in my example above) will be obvious. Others (like the Temur Battle Rage, which I’m still unsure about) will be less so. If you’re a casual-competitive player, like me, sideboarding can be all about experimenting. Someone has to try new things, and it might as well be you. Sideboarding guides can also help, but remember, the most important part of sideboarding is considering how each card is going to fit your plan. If a card doesn’t feel right for your plan, don’t side it in.
For example, I considered siding in an extra Kolaghan’s Command for game two of the TitanShift match, to replace the Dreadbore I mentioned above. But I consider Kommand a grindy card, and I was not preparing to fight a grindy battle. So I did not bring it in (though I did bring it in for game three, after I saw Chalice of the Void).
By the end of this process, you’ll have a number of cards you want to take out of your main deck, and a number of cards you want to move in from your sideboard. If you’re lucky, that number will match. Often, that won’t be the case. That’s where the next step comes in.
Managing the Gap
There are two scenarios in which you’ll have to manage a mismatch between the number of main deck cards you want to cut and the number of sideboard cards you want to bring in.
The first scenario, in which you have too many dead main deck cards and not enough sideboard cards to replace them, is easier to manage. In this case, you pull out your very worst cards, put in your sideboard cards, and pray to not draw those other main deck cards. Note that you do have some degree of control in this scenario: You get to decide what your very worst main deck cards are. Some cards might be bad but have fringe applications. Keep those cards in over cards that are just strictly bad. Remember, think of your plan, and try to determine whether any of your “bad” cards fit that plan better than others.
The second scenario, in which you have too many sideboard cards you want to bring in, is more difficult. You will be tempted to bring all of these sideboard cards in and make additional cuts from your main deck. In some cases, it may even be right to do so. But it isn’t always, and you need to make sure you’re not cutting integral pieces from your deck just to bring in sideboard cards.
As an example, Dredge players often note that, though they could bring in six or seven cards for a particular match-up, they’ll stop at three or four. That’s because the Dredge deck requires a certain number of Dredgers and discard spells to “go off,” and cutting any of those for more sideboard cards risks ruining the deck’s overall plan. There is such a thing as oversideboarding. Unless my extra sideboard cards are very, very good, I often stick to just filling in the holes I found while I was cutting cards from my main deck.
As you manage the gap against a particular deck, note the fact that you had an awkward number of cards to bring in and out for this match-up. That’s something you’ll want to return to later. But for now, you can shuffle up and prepare for game two. And then game three. And then the next match. All of which you’ll have to sideboard for.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
The tricky thing about best-of-three Magic is that you’ll often play more sideboarded games than game ones. That makes sideboarding, and sticking to your sideboarding process, especially important.
In extremely weird match-ups, you might want to shortcut your process and reach for a particularly relevant sideboard card first. Again, I’d argue against doing this thing. In some cases, you might misidentify your deck’s best way to win in game two, and want to adjust your deck heavily for game three. The same sideboarding process applies as you switch gears.
Sideboarding requires you to know your own deck, know the best way for it to win against the deck you’re playing against, know whether being on the play or on the draw matters (though honestly, don’t worry about this one for a bit), and know whether your opponent is going to change gears as THEY sideboard. That player at your FNM that complains about sideboarding being hard? They’re not wrong.
But, as with most things Magic-related, you can get better at sideboarding with time. Just keep applying the process, refine it to fit your own style and needs, and most of all, sideboard thoughtfully. Because as you get better at sideboarding itself, you’ll also want to get better at building sideboards.
Think About Whether Your Sideboard Helped You
Remember when I had you note particularly egregious mismatches between the number of cards you wanted to side in and out? This step is why. At the end of your tournament, you should look through your sideboard and note which cards you used, which cards performed, which cards you never wanted, which cards did nothing, which match-ups you had too many or too few cards for, etc. Because your sideboard only has fifteen spots, and none of them should be dead.
Again, this is where thinking about your plan can help. But in addition, you should think about the decks you played against, and how likely you are to see them again. If you play at a five-person shop where you see the same people every week, and three of those people play the same deck week-in and week-out, you might want to overprepare for those decks. If you play at a 50-person shop where people change things up all the time, you’ll have to do the best you can. But you can still note weak cards, match-ups where you had too many dead main deck cards and not enough sideboard cards, and even match-ups that you just want to give up on and not sideboard for. The important thing is to think about it, make your choices for a reason, and adjust as those reasons don’t pan out.
Eventually, you’ll get the hang of building a sideboard, as well as how to use it. But what do I know? I’m just a dummy.